"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Friday, April 28, 2006

Thursday & Friday

This is where I spent all day Thursday, and part of the evening.

My Friday morning breakfast.

During a walkabout, pausing under a blossom-laden tree.

A lovely view at the end of a delightful day.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Heaven in a Bottle

My favourite beverage, non-alcoholic category.

And one I’d cross an ocean to get to.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It's Here...

The new Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris duets album was released today.

It's only been what, seven, eight, nine years in the making? I can't recall, but it's been a long, long wait.

Enjoyed hearing them on Prairie Home Companion over the weekend.

They're scheduled to perform on David Letterman this Thursday night.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Celebrity Dan and Little Me

Author Dan Brown gave a lecture last night. This is/was quite a
newsworthy event,
not only in the region--AP covered it as well as the local press. It was, as we are accustomed to hearing, "a rare public appearance." To his credit, when he pops up in public he often does so to benefit local nonprofits--as he did for the authors' association about a year go.

Last night, the venue was a wonderful old theatre in a Seacoast city, where I've attended memorable concerts.

Highlights: He actively participated in the making of the movie The Da Vinci Code, and is credited as a producer. He seemed pleased with the outcome, describing the film version as "mesmerising." He regrets the loss of his privacy, due to his worldwide successes and surrounding controversies. He doesn't mind the controversy, as it generates debate on matters spiritual and scientific. His next novel will be finished when it's ready, he takes a long time to get it right. When he get into a tough spot in his manuscript, he works things out by hanging upside down in gravity boots for a about an hour. Oh, and he's so accustomed to being sued now, that at the outset of his talk he joked there were legal forms out in the lobby, if any of the audience members wanted to sue him, too.

Now, I've never met Dan (that I know of) but I certainly know plenty of people who know him. I feel like I know him because at the time his first novel was published, I'd started writing historicals for a major publisher. Our region of the country is small, the bookstores are few and well known, as well as the media outlets. So any author of popular fiction grows familiar with the names and genres of other authors making the rounds at the same time.

As I carried out all my promotional activities, I became aware a local prep school teacher who had written a thriller titled Digital Fortress. For a time in the late 90's, when there were fewer published genre novelists in this area, I belonged (in my own mind, anyway) to a triumvirate of productive but far from world-famous regional writers. Dan was the techno-thriller man, Brendan Dubois was the mystery man, I was the romance chick.

On any given day there might be an article in the paper about one or the other of the guys, or a tv or radio interview. And then I'd be the subject of a similar feature, print or broadcast. And at the time--believe it or not--I was doubtless outselling both of them. Put together.

I suspect I'll see the movie at some point, especially after his glowing review and his contagious exuberance about his involvement in its creation. I've never got round to reading DVC. Don't know whether I will. And that's no slam against Dan--it's not about him, it's about me. I generally read bestsellers approximately a decade after they cool off, if at all. For several reasons, some entirely unrelated to the fellowship among writers, I'm the last person in the world to be snotty about Dan's success or his writing style or anything else about him.

What impressed me most about Dan's comments: everything he said about his writing process, and especially the revision process, rang famililar bells for me. (Well, except the getting up at 4 a.m. to do it, and the gravity boots...) He hit upon the universal truths about the writing life, its challenges. He speaks from a different platform than the average author at the average appearance--his is way bigger, the spotlight is much brighter, the crowd is more intensely interested, due to his celebrity.

And yet deep down, below the surface, internally, there's really no difference at all between him, or me, or any other writer out there banging away at a keyboard. I think the massive size of his paycheck makes people forget that salient fact!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Frenzied Gardener

Spent the entire weekend in a gardening frenzy.

Yesterday I:

--divided, transplanted, or moved perennials and biennials (lily of the valley, columbine, lupine, lamb's ear, bee balm, lathyrus/perennial sweet pea, false sunflower, dicentra, cranesbill geranium, foxglove, Queen Anne's lace)
--created a perennial border along the back of the fence using divisions of the above
--fertilised the 17th century sweet peas growing in a tub on the deck (Matucana, Painted Lady)
--planted seeds (lovage, calendula, various poppies, annual sweet pea)
--re-laid all the rock edging along garden paths in the front rose garden
--re-laid the paths in the front and back rose gardens (many wheelbarrow loads of bark were moved)

And I saw our male cardinal and his missus sitting together in a tree. Kissing! First time we've ever seen a female, though recently we've sometimes heard them calling back and forth to one another.

Today (after church) I:

--purchased snow peas at the farm supply store
--divided and moved daylillies
--transplanted even more lathyrus/perennial sweet pea (it self-sows like crazy!)
--turned over the soil and otherwise prepped my vegetable garden
--planted snow peas

When the rain started, I came inside. Soon as I sat down with a cup of tea, I realised I was a bit weary. And yet...several of my indoor plants require attention.

So, while I'm

a.) gardening


b.) recovering from gardening

you may admire my snake's head fritillary, now blooming quite nicely in the front garden.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shrub or Tree?

You be the judge...

For me, this image proves the maxim--for actors, models, photographers--that proper lighting is a Very Good Thing.

I used to have forsythia envy in the worst way. Years ago I strategically planted some stick-like things in 1-gallon pots labelled forsythia. In subsequent seasons, neither put on much of a show. Driving past the neighbours' gardens was almost depressing, but it was my main opportunity to see this plant in all its yellow glory. My regular errand runs only induced intense frustration.

Not this year!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect

The title of today's commentary comes from a Todd Rundgren album. My topic doesn't really have much to do with Todd, per se, I'm simply borrowing his title. I can't resist pointing out, however, that Todd is currently fronting the band New Cars, and based on what I've heard so far, doing a fine job. It sounds like the old Cars, with Todd Rundgren singing, and sounding sort of like Ric Ocasek but not really.

Not too long ago, I was watching that much lauded, film Capote, which deserves all its many awards.
Films about writers are either a.) quite interesting, or b.) somewhat dull. Writers' lives and inspirations might be utterly fascinating, but their daily slog at the keyboard doesn't exactly make for thrilling visuals. (Barton Fink would be an exception, I suppose.)

Capote illustrated a couple of things really well for me.

1. The way some writers seem hard-wired to bust out of their familiar, comfortable niche and challenge themselves--for whatever reason. In following the murder case, Capote successfully created a new form of writing, what he called the "nonfiction novel." The implication of the film was that life and writing would never be the same for him, after reaching the pinnacle of fame he achived with In Cold Blood. Those familiar with his biography will know he was already extremely famous, and it was his subsequent social ostracism that bedeviled him as much if not more than his literary success.

If shoved up hard against a wall and forced to answer the question, "What do you like best about being a writer?" the answer comes easily. It's the opportunity, and the ability, to reinvent myself. To mix it up. To take risks--with the career, with the reputation (for the better or the worse.) To alter others' expectations, mess with their heads a little.

That's why I have more than one project going pretty much all the time. I can't just be a fiction writer. The other work might be something as simple as a letter to the editor or an 800-word opinion column, or as complex as an ambitious literary biography.

2. What Rundgren called the "ever popular tortured artist effect." It's not fun feeling tortured. I'm not wholly convinced that suffering and pain result in the greatest art. Feeling slightly unsettled is helpful, because if I'm too comfortable I'm not fully awake to that sense of challenge that I crave.

If I'm in agony, I have trouble focussing on the work. (Ask me how much writing I did when I recently suffered from the flu from hell...)

The exception: when writing through the agony is a means of escaping it. I cranked out a fair number of words in the weeks following September 11th, whereas other writers I know dried up. They wondered whether, in that horrific situation, their efforts, their calling to entertain readers, had any value. I decided that if Osama was lurking in my woods (and for more days of paranoia than I care to admit that's exactly what I thought), I needed to keep following my dreams, taking dictation from my muse, for as long as I could. Or the terrorists would win.

Does an audience want to see the artist suffer, do they really expect it, and if so, why? Why is the tortured artist such a popular and prevalent image?

I wondered this while watching Truman Capote slam back all those cocktails, and fret about the ending of his book--wholly dependent on the death of human beings, just as its beginning was dependent on that brutal murder. All I can say is, anyone who takes on such a subject is bound to be affected by it. Goes with the territory.

Perhaps I'd feel a lot more tortured as a writer if I were doing books with murders or serial killers or vampires or evil aliens.

I'm feeling really challenged right now--I prefer that word to tortured. And the challenge that a few paragraphs ago I said I crave is in itself a form of torture.

I'm nearing the end of a lengthy research phase....All along I've been writing the novel, but with plot and characters fairly well jelled now, I won't be dipping into the reference books so much. Finishing the damn book will seemingly take forever and no doubt be torturous, but in a way I can't even envision, not even with my vast stores of imagination. Every one I write is so different, and this one's more different than most because I've never tried this particular form of fiction writing before.

But let's pretend I didn't actually admit that. It can be tiresome when writers whinge and groan in public...too often. I try and keep it to a minimum around here--

however entertaining it might sometimes appear up there on the big screen.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Weekend

We've had busy days--and even nights, with church services on the evening of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

I spent the sunny Saturday puttering about the garden, where the bulbs are putting on a lovely display.

Saw a phoebe, briefly, but no more activity at the nest site.

Also, I cleaned my office, a major achievement. As my reward, my husband loaded up the DVD player with Pride & Prejudice (the recent film). It was his idea to watch it again.

I surprised him on Sunday morning with this Easter basket, and the gift of his favourite sort of licorice.

The happy and festive morning started out bright but grew grey and blustery while we were at church. During the service, we had surprise visitors: a pair of chicks, who had a starring role in the children's homily. After the service, their handler, our rector's son, let me hold one--so soft!

It wasn't a good outdoor day, so we spent the afternoon and early evening watching Amadeus: The Director's Cut, and the assorted documentaries associated with it.

Another grey morning this Easter Monday, not a problem as I've got indoor things to do. We expect a significant warm-up as the week goes on.

I'm frantically shopping for 17th century films today, for research purposes as well as entertainment. I've decided I absolutely must own The Draughtsman's Contract, and will try to obtain a copy of an even more obscure film featuring William and Mary. Fingers crossed!

I'm expecting a crucial parcel from London, another research related item...I hope hope hope it arrives this week, so I can stop obsessing about it.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Return of the Phoebe

Our first, brief phoebe sighting was on March 31, and only rare glimpses since.

Today one phoebe has been around all day, snatching bugs from the air, and checking out the nesting site of the past 2 years, the light fixture outside our bedroom window.

Phoebe returns to nesting site

Last year, nest construction started on April 19, and that nest ultimately produced 2 broods of 4. Do the math, that's 8 little birdies! And we had a front row seat to the entire show.

We've only seen the single bird today. It's been extremely noisy, flying around, perching, yelling to its mate to come on over and start building.

Hey,let's get busy building a nest here!

It must remember me--and my camera--from last year, because it didn't mind a bit that I was snapping away from inside the house. I even got a "What are you lookin' at?" stare--coppin' some 'tude, aren't you, little birdie?

What are you lookin' at?

To the accompaniment of constant phoebe cries, and cardinal chirrups, and other birdsong, I repotted my azalea and a bunch of other things. For the rest of the afternoon, I was busy in my rose beds. I transplanted 2 roses that had been in their places, not very contentedly, for more than a decade.

Rosa alba semi-plena moved from a shady spot where it never bloomed much, to the brightest spot in the front garden, a lavender bed directly in front of my garden bench.

Rose de Peintres, a centifolia, was already in the front garden but was being crowded out by some expansive gallicas whom I love far more. So I moved the centifolia into the backyard along the fence. Not sure this was a good idea or not--time will tell. I must say, it came through the winter better than it usually does, virtually no dieback, and looks fantastic. But it hasn't bloomed for years and years, so it's a risk I had to take. Also along the fence, I planted some offshoots of my gallica Charles de Mills.

Plenty of blooming rose pics can be found here on my website.

Still waiting for the rose shipment to arrive. It's officially due tomorrow, but I hoped it might come sooner.

My first King Alfred daffodil opened today.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Floral Joys

The gardens are becoming quite colourful now, as the spring bulbs open.

These early daffodils light up my day!

The mild, pleasant weather means I'm working outside much of the day, postponing my research and writing for late afternoon or evening.

I've nearly finished my big clean-up of the rose and perennial beds. I haven't yet started preparing the vegetable garden. It's the New England tradition to plant peas on Good Friday...fairly sure I can manage that. Mine will be snow peas.

I've pruned my roses--the modern, re-blooming ones that need spring pruning. Most bushes only get the really harsh treatment every other year, and they were due.

My monster rugosas, on the other hand, get whacked down a foot or two or three every spring, and thrive on it. It's a very vigorous pruning session, good for taking out my aggressions in a productive way. When I take my shears to the rugosa hedges, they know they've been pruned. I don't consider myself a sadist, but the rugosas are definitely masochists. "Whack me harder, come on! I can take it!" In a few months they'll reward me by turning into a hedge of cerise-coloured blossoms--with a buzzing bumblebee nestled in every one.

Five new roses are due today via FedEx: 2 climbers, a gallica, a damask, and a polyantha. Four go in the ground (I'll be digging holes tomorrow!). The fifth will go into a tub on the porch.

It's another perfect outdoor day...nevertheless, I'm off to the city a bit later to do "city stuff." Shopping, meetings, mailings. Muttering at idiot drivers.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Oh, Deer

This is a famous historical artifact: presumed to be my first work of fiction.

Little Deer

Once there was a little deer. Little deer wanted his spots to go away so one day he said mother when will my spots go away. What! you need your spots thell (sic) help you hide.
What! don't go away spots.

I was 7 years, 2 months, 1 week, and 1 day old. My mother must have sensed something about my prospects, to have saved this paper. But why shouldn't she? This stuff is genius! The desperate longing for change. Or, perhaps subconsciously, the desire for adult status. Not to mention the intensity of the drama (What! What!) Or the unexpected Twist at the end....

Mind you, there's no foreshadowing of my later superlative skill in grammar, spelling, and punctuation for which line editors and copyeditors cherish me. And which even enabled me, my very own self, to do free-lance editing (for $$$) for NY publishers before I ever had a prayer of being published myself.

My enchanting, though brief, tale was written before I became acquainted with the terrors of Bambi or The Yearling. (I was forever traumatised by both books and both films.)

I wrote it long before I discovered that venison is quite a tasty meat.

And also before witnessing the aftermath of a deer-car collision.

For I created my masterpiece in a more innocent time of life, never realising that one day, I would engage in a fierce battle of wits and wills, with a deer. In my very own garden.

I live in a forest on a lake. Deer roam the forest, and they like to drink lake water.

Oh--and I grow lots of roses. Deer love to nibble the tender shoots and rose leaves. And more. This I learned the hard way.

Some years ago, approximately one week before the paying customers of the June Garden Tour were due, one of Little Deer's true-life counterparts paid a midnight call in my front garden. It gnawed off about 50% of the swelling buds on my antique roses. The roses everybody was coming to see. The roses that bloom only once a year.

Fortunately, the reblooming roses in the back gardens were undisturbed and remained intact.

It was a good year for blooms, so I had plenty of rare old roses on the day of the Garden Tour. But I vowed to do whatever necessary, short of gun play, to protect my 75 (or whatever it was back then) rose bushes.

Recalling the deer barrier my favourite New England garden gurus, Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman had recommended on their television program, the following spring I hastened to the garden supply store. I stocked up on deer fencing--a fine vinyl mesh--and 6 foot bamboo stakes, and twine to attached the mesh to the stakes. I then encircled my plot of old roses, a fiddly and frustrating business, but I had to try it.

The mesh, my gurus inferred, didn't so much keep the deer out, as make them "nervous" when they bumped up against it. Whatever.

Barbara and Eliot neglected to caution that if you rig your deer fence in early April, and you get a foot of snow, then a freeze, the bamboo canes snap under the weight. The snow-heavy mesh topples onto your roses, breaking the canes. It's as bad as deer damage--no, worse, because it's self-inflicted.

Over the years, I perfected the timing of my deer fence installation. No more munched buds. No more broken canes.

I no longer hate and fear the graceful, pretty doe who occasionally comes onto our property en route to the lakeside. Sometimes she even serves a useful purpose, pruning the wild shrubbery that encroaches on our "lawn." (I live in a woodland, so technically when I say lawn, it means the open space where trees don't grow and grass or moss covers the ground.)

Today, confident that the gardener and the rumimant can co-exist peacefully, and assuming last week's dusting was the end of our snow, I performed my annual ritual.

Instead of hearing conversations in my head between the main characters of my work-in-progress, I was thinking about Little Deer, with his spots and his wise mother--my first work of fiction. And now, thanks to this blog, the most recently published.

P.S. Not only do I write better than I did aged 7, I can draw a whole hell of a lot better!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Paler Shades of White

Here are my late white crocus, not to be confused with the early white crocus featured in a previous post. When the sun is shining, they open up and are quite breathtaking. On this cool and gloomy day, not so much--but any sign of spring is welcome round here.

A few days ago, my husband found this poor little white egg lying in our driveway.

A tree-climging rodent evidently raided a bird's nest, removed the egg, neatly gnawed off the top, and devoured the contents.

After using a well-thumbed bird book to identify the colour and characteristics of the eggs laid by every single type of bird frequenting our habitat, I concluded that this empty egg formerly contained an embryonic woodpecking type creature. Maybe the downy or the hairy woodpecker. We have a pair of each, and see them often. The male and female hairy woodpeckers, at this very moment, are making out and making bizarre sounds as they chase each other up and down and around a tree. Kinky foreplay! Quite fowl, actually.

Or, more likely, this might be the sapsucker's egg. Because so far, we've only seen the male, who constantly attacks our big hemlock (now grievously scarred.) The absence of a female would indicate she's sitting a nest in a tree hole somewhere. And maybe she left it just long enough for an evildoer to climb in.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hyacinth Blue

The flower stalk on my blue hyacinth has peaked!

Rober Furber, early 18th century nurseryman and flower cataloguer, was the first person to recommend growing bulbs in glass containers of water.

Because, he declared, it is the "neater and cleaner way and more acceptable to the Fair Sex who must be pleased to see a Garden growing, and exposing all the Beauties of its Spring Flowers with the most delicious perfumes thereof, in their Chambers or Parlours."

And I can attest that the perfume is quite delicious!

The monthly floral prints from Furber's famous work The Flower Garden Display'd (1732) are some of the most familiar flower art around. Here's "February," with a blue hyacinth simliar to mine!

After lots and lots of rain, we got a dusting of snow overnight. It's already gone.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sweets in Abundance

We enjoyed a nice, bright, breezy weekend. Saturday was my "puttering" day. I re-staked and fertilised my glorious fig tree (now fully leafed out and looking so content!) I pruned some leggy houseplants, potted up a tuberous begonia, planted some of the Marvel of Peru seeds, descendants of the ones I nicked in the Tradescant Garden during a visit to the Garden History Museum in London. I walked round our little lake, spying on the interesting waterfowl--hooded mergansers and ordinary mallards, mostly.

Yesterday after church we went to the bigger city for lunch at our favourite Mexican eatery and a tour of the current exhibit at the art museum. Then a very scenic drive home along the back roads. These cattle belong to an acquaintance of ours.

I finished Jim's Beautiful Madness and enjoyed it very much indeed. Exactly my sort of book, and with so many signs of spring round here, most inspiring.

Today my Easter gift from my husband was delivered.

It's a tin full of chocolate. (Sweets for the sweet!) What a hero he is!

It arrived so early, no telling how much will be left by Easter Day. However, if I exhibit the same restraint as I do with the Christmas tin, it won't all be gone.

There's another sweetness fanatic around here. A demented yellow-bellied sapsucker has spent days pecking our nice big hemlock. It's the same tree where Shakespeare the Owl perched, and the one the black bear climbs on his summer visitations.

Must get back to my novel. Today I'm grappling with rather a grim scene. The King has assembled all his illegitimate children round his deathbed, and not a few of his mistresses. In my opinion, the Royal medics doctored him into a premature grave. Perhaps they disapproved of his lecherous mode of living!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Flora and Fauna on April Fools Day

This morning was warm and bright, so I took these hyacinths outdoors for a breath of fresh air and sunshine. I forced my bulbs a bit later this year, and when these are finished I'll start another pair, same colours. The hyacinths in my garden are on their way up, and they'll bloom before the next batch of indoor bulbs. That's all right--I can never get enough of them.

Here's something else sunning on the deck: Shadow. I caught her when she was flopped on her back in a most undignified position. April Fool, indeed!

My latest horticultural triumph is the blossoms on my banana shrub. I've had this plant for 2 years at least, and have waited impatiently for it to mature enough to bloom. The blossom, on the lower left portion of the plant, is the colour of a ripe banana, and gives off a scent rather like banana cream pie. This is one of those "I grew up with it" plants, much loved in my childhood. It formed a massive shrub--taller than I was--in a wilderness-y area of my mother's garden. When it was laden with these blossoms, the scent would almost knock me over. My treasure is far smaller, but no less beloved. There are several more buds ready to pop.

This afternoon we're having a much needed rainshower. I intended to be in the garden all day--having spent most of yesterday in the city, lunching with a friend and running errands (many book purchases were made!) I might run outdoors in between damp spells.

Or, far more likely, I'll curl up with one of those new books, Beautiful Madness by acquaintance and fellow plant enthusiast, James Dodson.
Like me, Jim transplanted himself to New England, from a distant, warmer clime. His latest book recounts his worldwide travels and encounters with gardens and gardeners. And he alludes to his own gardening experiences in his Maine garden, which my husband and I visited more years ago than I care to mention!